Teachers: Are you more like an Alien or a Monster with your students?

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Do you have students who can’t function unless they have clear answers? Or students who question you to death about everything?  I do and I always find myself imploring the first group to tolerate the ambiguous nature of questions and the second group to appreciate the definiteness of answers. Helping students find a healthy balance between these two extremes is a daunting task.

A few years ago a student in my philosophy class sent me this delightful comic strip by Kostas Kiriakakis titled Mused: A Day at the ParkThe comic is a conversation between a bizarre looking alien with one eye, holding a mysterious box in his hands and a disheveled monster wearing an oversized coat and undersized hat. The monster wants to know what’s in the box, and the alien happily complies with the request…

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They then embark on a conversation exploring the pitfalls and possibilities of questions and answers and the relative role each should play as a guide for learning and life.

The conversation is fascinating. I’ve shared it with many colleagues and hundreds of students. Each person who reads it comes away with something different.

It also really gets me thinking about my own teaching philosophy:

Am I more like the alien or the monster with my students?

Which one SHOULD I be more like?

If being an alien and a monster are both important, then how do I know when to switch from one to the other to inspire the most student learning?   

Take a look.  How would you answer these questions?

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Answering Big Questions = Critical Thinking on Steroids

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Big Questions are great tools to organize courses and units. Regardless of how we end up using them, sooner or later reality demands that students find some answers!  And here’s where the real work begins.

Consider the challenge this way:  to answer a Big Question well students must not only remember what they have learned, but they must connect that learning with the question in a way that shows deep understanding and an ability to construct an argument to solve an intellectual problem. Sounds like critical thinking on steroids.

Here are a few example responses from a student in my AP government class. (Wait! Disclaimer!  “Yes” this is an exceptional example and “No” most of my students aren’t able to think this clearly and write this well!). But disclaimer aside, the responses here can help us get a clearer picture of what we are looking for.

Is popular sovereignty a reality or an illusion?

Connection to our Campaigns and Elections unit…

Student Response:  The Electoral College may be an effective argument for the fact that popular sovereignty may be an illusion. One may look to the 2016 election. In order to win the presidential election, one must win a certain number of electors, who cast their votePeoplePower in favor for that candidate depending on the popular vote of the state. Although Donald Trump may have won the Electoral Vote, Clinton won the popular vote by a few million, bolstered by the strong support in states such as California, Illinois, and New York. Since candidate Clinton lost the presidential election, despite winning the popular vote by a significant margin, one might consider that popular sovereignty might be more of an illusion, or at least convoluted, than what our people like to say. Or others might argue that the electoral college is a form of popular votes by the states, as the candidate needs to appeal to a wide range of voters in order to succeed.

Connection to our Judiciary unit…

Student Response:  The appointment of judges is somewhat contrary to popular sovereignty. A president must nominate a judge, and that nominee must pass a majority of the senate. WhileThe Roberts Court, 2017 the public might be able to mail their senators and try to sway their vote, the will of the people has a diminished effect on this process. In addition, only impeachment, death, or retirement can bring these judges out of office; the populace can’t vote them out. One might argue that popular sovereignty has no effect in this regard because of these listed reasons. Yet this appears to be intentional by the Framers. If judges could be elected, they would interpret the law according to the people’s will to stay in office, rather than what they would regard as the truth. Although it is an illusion, perhaps it is better that way in this instance.

Notice:

  1. The content of the course is still important but now it’s being used to serve a larger purpose (answering a provocative question).
  2. Valuable skills are in full force- analyzing, connecting and making arguments.
  3. Learning is expressed across units, instead of being confined within them.
  4. It’s actually more interesting to read because the teacher is getting an insight into what concepts stuck during instruction. This is valuable feedback.

This student has demonstrated a deep understanding of the popular sovereignty theme. For other students who may have missed these connections, it’s not the end of the game. There will be several other opportunities in subsequent units to revisit the theme in a new setting, and that provides a fresh opportunity to make a connection. Herein lies the beauty of Big Questions: they provide a recursive learning experience. If you don’t get it the first time, try, try again!

Government teachers: Can you think of any other areas of government content which could connect to this Big Question?  Or how about other government big questions from a previous post.?

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Attention Government Teachers! Is there a Big Question YOU would add to this list?

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Here’s what I have so far…

  1. Does our system of government succeed or fail in preventing the abuse of power?  

  2.  Do interest groups frustrate or promote democratic ideals?

  3. Is popular sovereignty a reality or an illusion?

  4. Are the media and political elites a corrupt or wholesome influence on our system of government?

  5.  Do political parties improve or impair the ability of Congress and the executive branch to function according to the Framers intent?

  6. Have the Court’s interpretation of the due process and equal protection clauses violated or honored the rule of law?

  7. Is federalism an impediment to or a pathway towards effective public policy?

 

Here’s how I am using these…

  • At the beginning of the year each student received a document with these seven questions
  • As we move through the different units, we stop to integrate the content we are learning with one or more of these questions. This unit we are examining federalism and the role of the 14 Amendment, and so we are looking through questions 1, 6 and 7.
  • At the end of the year students join together in small groups, select one of the questions,  develop a thesis and present a argument using all of what they have learned in the course.

This is the very similar to the approach I used in US history.

Is there a Big Question YOU would add to this list?  Reply on Twitter with your favorite question!   @dmfouts

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Cultivating Virtue in a Big Questions Classroom

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Is it just me or are learning targets often written in very sterile and boring language?

In a social studies classroom…

Students can describe the political and social consequences of American imperialism.

or in an English classroom…

Students can summarize the main idea in Chapter 4 of the Great Gatsby 

There’s nothing wrong with these targets. They are very specific. They establish clear expectations for behavior. The content in both is important. They are written in ‘student-friendly’ language.

Yet there’s something about them that just isn’t very inspiring.

I think we write learning targets in this form out of fear, fear of living in a world where we are unable to measure learning. As a result of this fear, we’ve developed the habit of carving up learning experiences into digestible pieces which seem easier to measure and understand. In the first example above, we’ve isolated the student skill of describing something. Then, we will then devise an assessment which measures this skill using a rubric. After analyzing the data generated from applying the rubric, we will devise intervention strategies for improving student performance of the task. If this ecosystem of measurement goes as planned, we will be able to reproduce our strategies with a different group of students and hopefully see similar results.

All of this makes rational sense.

While I think this approach works well with certain learning tasks in certain learning environments, it runs into a brick wall when applied to a classroom guided by Big Questions.

Here’s why…

In a Big Questions classroom the ultimate goal of learning is to foster a certain way of thinking and being. The energy and culture of the classroom aren’t geared towards objective, scientific measurement of isolated learning tasks and behaviors, but rather towards the cultivation of certain dispositions- aka virtues- for living. Consider some of the virtues on display when students and teachers construct and apply Big Questions: patience, perseverance, humility, confidence and curiosity. These aren’t specific behaviors as much as they are signposts of good character and, as such, they are harder to think about and measure empirically. But the fact that they are harder to measure shouldn’t diminish their importance.

Big Questions classrooms can’t be exempt from learning targets. That is absurd. But they must include different kinds of targets which can exist happily alongside the more traditional ones.

I’ve come up with five learning targets, named “philosophical dispositions”, which all students in all of my classes are expected to meet throughout the year. I post them for all to see and make it a habit to acknowledge students who demonstrate them. In this way I am constantly assessing how students are developing these core virtues.


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With Big Questions leading the way, I hope that the cultivation of virtue will inspire students to care more about their learning and, more importantly, about the type of people they aspire to become. Now that’s a target we can all get behind.

Do you try to cultivate virtue in your students?  If so, how?

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Featured image– Taken from Google Images- free to share or modify

Women’s history Big Question: How do gender roles define people?

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Last week we saw how Big Questions can organize an entire US history course.

This week we see how one can begin a unit on the Women’s Movement and inspire  students to become more thoughtful about how gender roles affect human identity and relationships. In light of the recent revelations of sexual harassment and gender bias in the workplace, there is perhaps no more important theme to explore.

US history teacher and Socrates in the Social Studies student Melissa Kinsey poses the question:

How do gender roles define people?

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In the lead up, Melissa organizes her class in gender groups and plays The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch. After the video students complete a   Stereotype-t-chart on which they identify stereotypes introduced in the book and stereotypes which exist today.  Students add to the chart after watching  I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m Glad I’m a Girl! and  Labels Against Women.

After class discussion, she shows a graphic  of how her unit will be organized with the Big Question placed right in the middle for emphasis.  On an exit slip students write out an initial response to the Big Question using what they have learned in this opening lesson.  Then, as the unit progresses, students revisit the very same Big Question (and the supporting ones) to build even more sophisticated understandings of how gender roles have come to define women and men throughout American history.

Most impressive here is the fact that Melissa has set up a recursive learning experience where students will gain deep understanding through repeated exposure to the same Big Question.

Can you think of a Big Question that could be used to teach Women’s history?

 

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Let’s Imagine what a course with Big Questions might look like

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It’s August and school starts soon.

Imagine it’s the second day of school. You’re finished with the rules and procedures, seating charts and get-to-know-you activities. Standing in front of your students, you’re ready to set the tone and framework for the next nine months of instruction.

You pass out this note

Welcome!

The purpose of this course is to struggle with the The Big Questions of US history.

At first these questions will confuse you. They are filled with unclear definitions and open to many different interpretations and seem to have no clear answer.

Your job is to monitor these questions throughout the year and slowly craft sophisticated responses to them as we move through the different units of the course.

In June, your final exam will be to choose one of the Big Questions (which could be one that YOU created independently), develop a thesis statement, and answer it convincingly using the content learned in the course as your evidence.

Or imagine doing this in AP government with the Big Questions showcased in the new curriculum redesign.

Here is what’s happening:

  1. You’ve established Big Questions to be the most important component of the curriculum. This tells students that asking them is valuable.
  2. You’ve set struggle as the expectation of the course. This is a subtle message that learning will be difficult but still worth pursuing. This is the growth mindset.
  3. You’ve honored the importance of skills while at the same time preserved the integrity of content.  And now you can discriminate your content based on whether or not it fits under one or more of the Big Questions.
  4. You’ve taught students that learning spans across units, instead of being confined within them.
  5. Students get ownership. They decide what content fits where; they determine how the content fits; they can even develop their own Big Question and track it throughout the year. In this way you have provided the context for student self-motivation.
  6. You’ve given students their final exam  on the second day of class! For the next nine months there is no confusion as to where the class is headed. This focuses you and the students like a laser on what is to be learned and why.

Admittedly,  it would be much more of a challenge to do this in an AP course with a rigid curriculum and content expectations. But even then you could have Big Questions in the backdrop and use them for enriching discussions.

Can you see yourself organizing your course using Big Questions?  If so, what might it look like?

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DF_Socrates Battle ImageNote: You can gain great practice designing your questions in Socrates and the Battle for the Soul of America, an online course offered through NCSS throughout the year. Check it out!

(Be on the lookout for future blog posts in which I feature the work of teachers who have completed the course.)

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Some Big Questions are 2,500 years old (and counting…)

appeasementFrom Socrates forward, we’ve asked:

Does everything happen for a reason?

Am I really in control of my actions?

Would I have turned out differently had I been born at a different time under different circumstances?

Underneath all of these big questions lurks an even bigger one:  Is my life guided by free will or determinism?  Open to interpretation and filled with murky definitions– this question has everything.

What makes the question so vexing is that it pits our common sense against our logic. It seems obvious that we have the freedom to act. But then, when we rewind our decisions and really think, it seems like every action we take is determined by the action taken just before it. Our logic tells us there is no way it could have happened any other way.

High school history teacher and Socrates in the Social Studies student Justin Riskus provokes this thousands-year-old Big Question to teach World War II. He begins in an unorthodox way by showing If you Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff.

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The narrator intones “If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll ask for a glass of milk.” Once that action occurs, the mouse must ask for a straw and then a napkin etc… Each action the mouse takes seems completely determined by the action taken just before. At the end, in a twist of irony, the mouse asks for a glass of milk and then a cookie to go with it, and we are back where we started.

Justin uses this story to stoke student interest in the Allies’ appeasement policy towards Hitler leadingBad Godesberg, Münchener Abkommen, Vorbereitung up to WWII.  There too we see a seemingly endless string of determined events, piling up on each other leading to one of the most horrific wars the world has ever seen.  A voice in our head asks “Was World War II determined to happen?” Justin cleverly uses the behavior of a mouse to inspire students to call into question whether history itself is caught in the iron grip of determinism or whether leaders have the free will to break history’s chain of events.

Employing a Socratic Seminar, Justin then coaxes students to consider the moral responsibility of modern day presidents.

“Should American presidents take the lesson of  If You Give a Mouse a Cookie to heart?”

Justin has drawn out an age-old philosophical question and looked at it with fresh eyes. In doing so, his students  are inspired to think about the choices humans must make in the service of preventing evil.

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Check out a few other lessons created by Justin Riskus:   Can War Be Glorious? and To Intervene or not to Intervene– THAT is the Big Question.

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